Making Something Meaningful

I’ve been told that sometimes I seem frustrated or cynical lately about new web things or Web 2.0 hype, and that’s probably because I have been. I grew up with technology and with loving software, and part of the reason why I loved it was because it felt like the people who were creating this stuff when I was a child were convinced that technology was going to change the world, permanently and for the better.

My early experience with blogging was exactly as they pictured it. It had a lasting positive impact on everything for me, from building a career to getting married to starting a whole new life for myself. Almost all of my closest friends are people I met through sharing my ideas or thoughts on my blog, and letting people respond with their own thoughts and ideas.

Five or six or seven years ago, my experiences in blogging were meaningful more often than not. Reading new posts from friends or discovering people who shared my interests felt a lot like the most profound experiences in any media. Being part of blogging felt like seeing one of those few great movies that I can watch over and over without getting tired of, or like a book that I can re-read and always find something new in, or like any of the songs that I can listen to that take me back to the first time that I heard them.

The good old days

But a lot of bloggers who’ve been doing it for years start to lose that connection. That’s why you see people burn out or flame out. And for the most part, I understand how it happens. Despite the fact that my blog is still fun and rewarding, I’ve had to develop a thicker skin, and that means it’s harder to let new people in. After you’ve been blogging for a number of years, and been through the blog cycle, you might belong to a community, but you’ve probably stopped being really open to at least some of those meaningful experiences. I think it’s somewhat similar to how most people’s musical tastes are defined by their early 20s, and seldom change after that point.

So, even though I spend all my time online, I don’t have many websites that I care about in the same way I care about the great films, books, and songs that move me. There are some web communitities that I participate in where there’s a real emotional connection, but it’s almost always in a smaller, private setting. Honestly, I was reticent to share the story of my marriage on my public blog because I was afraid of the reaction from people who didn’t care. I’m not surprised that total strangers wouldn’t care about my wedding, mind you, but rather I was unwilling to have something so important to me be dismissed by people who were (understandably) uninterested.

Experiencing something important helped me realize that I wanted to share the most important thing in my life with people who had enough connection to me to find it meaningful.

And connecting, communicating, creating, and sharing the things that matter should be a meaningful experience whether it’s in old or new media. We seem to have lost a lot of our bigger ambitions for the web, instead settling for doing things simply because we can. I spend all my time being an advocate for blogging and the medium in the best way I know how to make those connections. But it’s not my vocation (and avocation) because I think everybody needs more software. It’s what I do because it’s made my life better and I think this medium can do that for other people too, and I want it to. I want us all to still be that ambitious.

The great parts of blogging still happen every day, but if you’ve been doing this for a while, it almost seems like it’s despite the technology, not because of it. People who are familiar with blogging really seem to think that, from a technology standpoint at least, it’s a solved problem. Blogging is not a solved problem.

But when I have met people in person at conferences or events over the last half year, the one post they most often mention that they remember reading on my blog is the one I wrote on the day of my wedding. And on some of the private community sites where I feel like I know everyone who’s participating, someone can do something as simple as posting a photo of a loved one along with a story and it can be profound and beautiful expression. It’s especially true because in these environments, most people are respectful. The sad truth is, though, that it’s hard to elicit that kind of response when I’m not seeing someone face-to-face, because on this site, I’ve got a different kind of forum. It’s one I’m very happy and privileged to have, and I will always try to do justice to that, but sometimes I just want to hang out with my friends. Or even make new friends. But either way, it’s about having a real connection.

Making Something Meaningful

If you believe that tools influence content, and I absolutely do, then the most important thing we can do with all this technology is to try to build tools that encourage meaningful expression. In fact, I’d say it’s even stronger than that; One of our obligations is to build tools that help people connect with their friends and family in a meaningful way.

That’s not to say there isn’t room for all the other more practical and prosaic uses for these tools, but rather that it’s important to articulate that this is a goal. In thinking about this, I realize it’s always kind of been in the back of my mind. It’s something that has been with me since I started trying to make this the thing that i do with my life.

The vocabulary I’m using for the idea, describing this as being “meaningful”, comes from Linda Stone. She’s long had the ability to articulate trends or concepts that we are all living with but don’t necessarily have names for. One of the signs of true genius is people who can identify something so profound that it seems obvious in retrospect.

I saw her most recently at Mark Hurst’s Gel Conference, but the topic of her talk was very similar to the ETech talk transcribed here. The key point to me is towards the end of Linda’s presentation:

Does this product, service, feature, or message enhance and improve our quality of life? Does it help us protect, filter, create a meaningful connection?

It’s a simple statement, but it’s important. Is this damn thing making my life better? That question’s been bouncing around in my head, in one form or another, for a while. I stopped reading feeds. I stopped having my IM client log on automatically when I start my computer in the morning. I’ve tried to eliminate many of the parts of my day that Lane would describe as making things un-bold.

That’s a pretty low bar, though, just getting rid of the stressful things. What about the stuff that I can’t wait to do? What are the sites that I’d like to curl up with like they’re a good book? There are some things that just feel good to use, like I’m spending my time in a worthwhile way instead of just killing time by clicking.

So, I’m talking about Vox, of course, to some degree. It’s the biggest new thing that’s being built where I work, so it naturally commands my attention. But as that’s still a work in progress, I’m more interested in what we can do with these ideas in general.

The sense of fun, of discovery, or even of explicitly being “meaningful” in the way that Linda has described was referenced implicitly or explicitly by the first posts about Vox from Andre, Mike, Nat, Matt, Heather and others.

But more important than the testaments from the technologically savvy is what I felt in just the first week that people began testing Vox. I found out that the friend that introduced me to my wife went to high school with one of my co-workers I see everyday. I discovered something as simple as a friend whom I don’t get to talk to enough likes the same remix of a song (and the same bit) as I do. Later on, I found out that some of the last people I’d ever expect to talk about books with have great recommendations about what I should be reading.

Well, So What?

The (valid) criticism of these kinds of discoveries is that they’re trivial, the kind of boring or banal memes that “serious” bloggers like to mock as being the domain of teenagers or stupid people. But the most important things are the things that we arrogantly want to dismiss as trivia. In every aspect of life, the most profound things are so common that if they don’t affect someone you love or care about, they can seem meaningless.

What I’d like to see is technology being used in service of helping me share and record those moments. And I’d like to see technology be used to help create those moments. Perhaps even more, though, I’d like to see that measure of being “meaningful” as a metric that’s used when evaluating new technologies, instead of just better/faster/cheaper or whatever else we fall back on.

Of course we aren’t there yet. This is a starting point for Vox, and it’s a nascent idea for most people who work with technology. It’s tough to try to articulate a goal that I can’t even do justice to. But I do like the idea of aspiring to make people’s lives better, and of promoting that goal explicitly instead of just assuming everyone’s on the same page. There have been tremendous advances in usability ever since people started articulating the need for addressing user experience explicitly, and this is really just an obvious extension of that work.

Instead of being exhausted spending our days unbodling things, what if there we made places online that we could be excited about? Sites that we’d make the time to remember to go and visit, instead of having to check them off of a list of things to do?

The new checklist

I guess the bottom line is that my own solution for Web 2.0 malaise or New Bubble Backlash is to try to remind myself to evaluate all the novel new sites and gizmos that I see based on a simple measure. It’s been less than a year since the Web 2.0 checklist was created. Now, mercifully, the list has gotten much shorter: Is this meaningful?